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Polling The Pakistani Revolution?

How Not To Analyze Potential Outcomes In A Post-Musharraf Pakistan

By Steve Schippert | March 14, 2007

The stability of Pakistan and the security of its nuclear weapons remains dependent upon the continued presence of its president, General Pervez Musharraf. Though his cooperation with the United States has been less than America may have hoped, Musharraf remains the only option. However imperfect and often frustrating the nature of his actions – or inaction – in prosecuting a war with the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region, he is the only buffer that stands between al-Qaeda terrorists and an already formed nuclear arsenal.

Suffice it to say, the alternative to Musharraf is unknown at best and horrifying at worst. The prospects of a Pakistan sans Musharraf is finally beginning to spark discussion. However, much of that discussion is wholly unsatisfying and lacking the starkness which colors the true outlook.

Take for instance a commentary by Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times, republished at the International Herald Tribune. In Just how delicately must U.S. treat Musharraf?, Mazzetti states the nuclear risk in Pakistan and asks, “But just how fragile is Musharraf's hold on power? And might the United States have more leverage than it believes?” Both of these are excellent and important questions. The course Mazzetti has chosen to ponder them, however, is wholly inadequate. Considering the stakes, one might even call the logic presented dangerous.

In an effort to diminish the potential for an Islamist-run Pakistani terrorist state, the commentary presents Pakistani polling data – yes polling data – from the 2002 elections in Pakistan. From this data, it is reasoned that there is not the popular support for an Islamist state run by the likes of figures in the Taliban, al-Qaeda or Islamist elements of the Pakistani military intelligence corps – the ISI.

After all, “religious political parties received just 11 percent of the vote, compared with more than 28 percent won by the secular party led by Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister.” Looking at more recent polling data, it is noted that “Islamist politicians received a drubbing in local elections in 2005, gaining less support than expected in their power base in the tribal areas.”

Of course, under Musharraf, polling data has always been suspect, but that is beside the point. For sake of argument, let the reader assume that the data is accurate that Islamist politicians loyal to the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance indeed received less than expected support in the tribal areas of the border region.

In the tribal areas – North and South Waziristan agencies of the FATA in particular – this issue is decided. The Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance bloodied and defeated the Pakistani military through intense motivation and superior willpower. In relatively short order, North and South Waziristan were ceded by Musharraf with his military defeated and assassination attempts on him persistent.

Can there be any doubt as to who controls those same tribal regions with an iron fist? The polling data did not matter then. It does not matter now.

Unfortunately, revolutions, insurgencies and the establishment of theocracies are not decided by polling data or popularity, though they can make the task at hand less difficult. Revolutions are decided by who has the most guns, the best explosives and, most importantly the most dedicated and motivated fighters.

To that end, the argument can be made that perhaps the Pakistani military may remain loyal to Musharraf and his direction even after his demise, be it by bullet, by bomb or by exile. But that argument is not made. It is merely alluded to, and in hollow fashion.

Let the reader judge how hollow.

In the New York Times version of the same article, One Bullet Away From What?, Mark Mazzetti draws upon the expertise of Robert Richer, a former CIA associate director of operations in 2004 and 2005. Richer enables a dangerously dismissive approach to the threat in saying, “I am not particularly worried about an extremist government coming to power and getting hold of nuclear weapons.” The logic presented in support of this view? “If something happened to Musharraf tomorrow, another general would step in,” Richer continued.

But which general, one might ask. To answer that, the reader is offered the official Pakistani ‘succession plan,’ where – on paper – “Based on the succession plan, the vice chief of the army, Gen. Ahsan Saleem Hyat, would take over as the leader of the army and Mohammedmian Soomro, an ex-banker, would become president.”

In order to understand how shallow this outlook is, one need only think like an Islamist in Pakistan so thirsting for power that assassinating the president is both a viable and expedient route to that end. If you are that Islamist, would you assassinate a detested president only to see him succeeded by men who share the same agenda and aims as the man you just murdered?

To believe this, one must accept two very false points; that an assassination of Musharraf is merely a punishment meted out and that the assassination order would come from a man or group who does not seek to gain power. The official Pakistani ‘succession plan’ looks nothing like the succession plan the Islamists have in mind.

Hamid Gul is often considered the most powerful man in Pakistan. Gul was head of the ISI when bin Laden and the Arab Afghans were organized to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. He has known Usama bin Laden for a long time and considers him a friend. Gul also was instrumental in the organization and formation of the Taliban, whom he says “implemented and ideal system” in Afghanistan and “upheld the dignity of women.”

In a March 5, 2007 interview in the Urdu-language Nawa-e Waqt, Gul said flatly that Pakistan’s “political parties have disappointed the nation and if the situation does not improve, the country should prepare for a revolution.” Pause here for the significance of such a statement from a 'retired' Pakistani general and former head of the ISI...

He went on to state that the “people of Pakistan want the system of a Medina state [sharia law] to be enforced in the country.”

How can that be when “religious political parties received just 11 percent of the vote” in 2002? The answer is obvious. Polls do not matter in revolutions. Nor do the official succession charts of the state to be under attack.

For an Islamist seeking “a Medina state,” General Ahsan Saleem Hyat and Mohammedmian Soomro are not acceptable successors. This much should be plainly clear. In the same Nawa-e Waqt interview, Gul addressed this rather directly in saying “leadership living abroad in exile should be recalled back home.” Nevertheless, Gul assures that “the nation itself gives birth to leadership in times of revolution.” In that, perhaps he is forecasting his own rise. He surely is not speaking of the rise of Ahsan Hyat or Soomro.

The question is when Gul and the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance will make their move. The former head of Pakistan’s ISI hinted at the urgency in saying that “we need to rise up as the time has come.” He may have foretold a period of perceived opportunity when he said “The US President will remain effective in power until next October; then the last year of his rule will begin and he will become ineffective. The Afghan leaders are now openly saying that Pakistan has done more damage than the United States, which is a cause of great concern for us.”

There are many productive ways to approach and analyze the potential outcomes in Pakistan if Musharraf is successfully assassinated and removed from power. Demonstrated here, it is hoped, is that citing Pakistani polling data and official government succession charts is decidedly not among them.

If there is a poll that matters to the Islamist jihadists, it is the American presidential poll.

1 Comment

Last July the New York Times published a better piece by Robert D. Kaplan (see "The Taliban's Silent Partner"). Kaplan's piece is mainly focused on Afghanistan, and is insightful in its analysis of the importance of Afghan village political economy, but in regard to this issue Kaplan seems to believe that many in the military are radicalized. This is an excerpt:

...But he feels himself atop a volcano of fundamentalism. He is among the last of the Westernized, British-style officers in the national army; after him come the men with the beards. The military and Pakistani society are filled with those who do not see the Taliban as a threat: it is an American problem, and one for an Afghan government toward which they feel ambivalence. So President Musharraf must walk a fine line. And he must be as devious with us as he is with any other faction...

We can’t reverse this drift without a stronger policy toward Pakistan. I say this with extreme trepidation. President Musharraf, for all his faults, may still be the worst person to rule his country except for any other who might replace him. And yet it is necessary to hold his feet to the fire to a greater extent than we have.

Things have reached the point that it was entirely justified for the American ambassador to Islamabad, Ryan Crocker, to say this month that the exiled former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif should be allowed to return and run against Mr. Musharraf. As corrupt as those two leaders were, we need leverage...

I don't know enough about the Pakistani military to say which is right on that issue, but I think Kaplan is right that we need to be engaged with other actors in Pakistani society. Musharraf can't stay president forever - okay, maybe he can - but the only way the country will be safe is with an institutional framework that depends upon more than this one man. If Musharraf objects to the U.S. engaging with others outside his circle of power, he needs to be remineded of this. Bhutto and Sharif are probably not the ideal partners to cultivate, since they both have legacies of corruption, but we need more than Musharraf in Pakistan.